Despite some disturbing findings, a July 27, 2011 report concludes that early intervention strategies may be reducing the number of students identified as having learning disabilities. The biennial report, The State of Learning Disabilities published by the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), describes the nature and history of learning disabilities in the U.S. as well as statistical trends from 2000 through 2009. Specific learning disabilities were defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as disorders in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language which may manifest in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations. The term does not include learning problems that primarily result from visual, hearing, or motor disabilities, mental retardation, emotional disturbance, or environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
A child identified as having a learning disability (LD) becomes eligible for special education and related services as mandated and partially funded by IDEA. The NCLD report points out that some researchers believe that the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later renamed IDEA) provided financial and other incentives for schools to inappropriately identify students as LD. The number of students with LD grew by more than 300% between 1976 and 2000; for most of that period students with LD represented more than 50% of all special education students. The rapid growth in the number of students identified as LD resulted in criticism that students were being referred to special education as LD because they were not taught to read rather than because they had an actual disability. When IDEA was reauthorized in 2004, Congress made substantial changes to the manner in which school-aged children were to be identified as LD and set new standards for educating students suspected as LD prior to actually identifying them as LD.
Statistics in the report show that the year 2000 marked the turning point in the increasing number of students identified as LD. Between 2000 and 2009, the total number of students with disabilities increased by 2%, while the number of special education students with LD decreased by 14%. The percentage of special education students with LD dropped from 50% to 42%. The greatest decrease in the identification students with LD was among elementary school students ages 6 to 11. As possible reasons for the LD decline in elementary schools, the report cites early childhood education, improvements in reading instruction, and Response-to-Intervention (RTI) as required by IDEA 2004.
The NCLD report found that disproportionality remained a problem in special education, with Hispanic and African American students being over-represented and Asian/Pacific Islander students being significantly under-represented when compared to the percentages of those minorities in the general population. The number of male students with LD was significantly greater than the number of female students with LD. The report also found that while students with LD increasingly spent more time in general education classrooms between 2000 and 2008, only 60% of the students had general education teachers with adequate training to meet their educational needs. Graduation rates for students with LD have steadily risen; however the rates for Hispanic and African American students continue to significantly lag.
The NCLD report can be downloaded at http://ncld.org/stateofld.